Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 in a symbolic cry for help for his low-lying island nation, says he’s not “pessimistic” about efforts to ramp up global climate action.
Now the speaker of parliament for his Indian Ocean home, he advocates on behalf of 48 vulnerable countries for more effort by big-polluter nations to cut emissions and boost finance for those on the frontlines of wild weather and rising oceans.
Ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow starting Sunday, the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) Nasheed represents — which unites developing nations from Africa, Asia and Latin America — has called for a “climate emergency pact”.
The grouping wants countries to ramp up their plans for emissions cuts at every annual U.N. climate summit through to 2025, striving harder to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.
That accord says countries should update their national climate action plans, known as NDCs, every five years, though the 2020 deadline for the second round of pledges was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are calling on any country — but especially the major emitters — to come with additional ambition at every single COP,” said Ethiopia’s Commissioner for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Fekadu Beyene earlier this month.
Close to 50 of the roughly 190 countries that signed up to the Paris accord have yet to submit new or updated emissions reduction goals due by the key U.N. talks.
Of those plans submitted, a few large emitters show low — or no — fresh ambition.
“They still have the same (small) amount of concern about inflicting harm on vulnerable countries”, even as warming impacts become more severe around the world, Nasheed said.
At COP26, governments will seek to get every country synchronized on a five-year schedule to tighten their emissions targets.
But a round of fresh pledges every five years may not be enough to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, seen as vital by scientists, small island nations and other at-risk countries for the world to avert the worst effects of climate change.
To stick to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. climate science panel says emissions need to be reduced by 45% below 2010 levels by 2030.
The latest U.N. assessment of existing plans and pledges by governments, however, shows emissions will rise 16% this decade from 2019 levels, unless efforts are ramped up significantly.
Another U.N. report this week estimated that current commitments to cut emissions put the planet on track for an average 2.7 degrees Celsius temperature rise this century, in yet another stark warning ahead of COP26.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres blamed the shortfall on a “leadership gap”, which he said must be closed at the talks starting in Glasgow on Sunday.
Pressure is growing on some of the world’s biggest-emitting emerging economies which have yet to formally submit stronger 2030 targets, including India, Russia and Brazil.
Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, said the window was “rapidly closing” on the chances of meeting the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal.
But G20 economies — which together account for about 80% of global emissions and whose leaders meet this weekend — could get most of the way there “if they really stepped up”, she noted.
All countries need to play their part but those that have submitted updated NDCs that do not improve on, or are weaker than, their first — as with Brazil and Mexico — should come back as soon as possible to revise those, she added.
The proposal by the CVF group is not intended to replace the five-year cycle provided for in the Paris pact but to encourage new commitments on an annual basis that could be folded into the formally updated plans.
Those yearly contributions could be in the form of a bigger emissions-cutting target, an expansion of greenhouse gas reductions covered to include methane, for example, or a goal to raise the share of renewables in a country’s energy mix.
U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa noted that the Paris Agreement allows governments to improve their plans at any time, and said she did not think formal changes were needed to the pact to make that happen more often than every five years.
With emissions-cutting pledges still “so far away” from what is required by 2030, “we need countries to be continuously reviewing their NDCs, looking for areas of opportunities that will allow us to increase ambition and hopefully close the gap,” she told journalists on Thursday.
Yet, while most climate experts and campaigners agree more collective effort is needed to limit planetary heating, there are differences of opinion on how to share the burden of delivering the required emissions reductions.
Some argue poor countries — most of which have historically spewed few greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — should not have to boost action each year, especially if funding to help them do so continues to fall short of promised levels.
Revamping climate plans can be a particularly heavy bureaucratic burden on small countries with few resources and already negligible emissions.
Former Ireland President Mary Robinson, who chairs The Elders, a group of veteran statesmen and women, told an event this month that an annual “ratchet mechanism” that applies to all countries across the board would not be helpful.
“I think this would get away from targeting those (nations) who are not meeting their responsibility,” she said. “I prefer a more politically targeted focus on those countries.”
Nasheed of the Maldives said governments that failed to phase down their fossil fuel industries and related emissions were not only hurting low-lying island nations like his but “digging their own grave”.
“They are not protecting the lives or the livelihoods of their own constituents or (their) infrastructure,” he said.
“Every country is vulnerable now,” he said, citing the almost 200 deaths caused by this summer’s floods in Germany and urging governments to raise their game at each annual U.N. climate summit.
Harjeet Singh, a senior advisor with Climate Action Network International, said climate negotiators were still failing to connect the dots between glacial progress on cutting emissions and surging losses and damage from global warming impacts.
“The outside reality must inform our thinking and our actions — it’s still not happening and we have to continue hammering on this point at this COP,” Singh said.
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